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How to Tend an English Garden

Looking across the Peacock Garden to the 15th-century main house at Great Dixter Gardens.

Photo: Simon Brown

Lutyens joined the two buildings and added bedroom wings built of brick and a kitchen and pantries. Also on the grounds is a large and beautiful medieval barn, with its old threshing floor, attached to an ancient oasthouse for drying hops; its ventilation hoods, silhouetted against the gray skies, turn with the wind.

Life in the house continues to follow the same patterns laid down decades ago: cocktails include Christo’s favorite 12-year-old Scotch, Syndicate; every evening, our dinner is prepared by the genial manager of house and garden, Aaron Bertelsen, who uses the same handwritten recipes that Daisy served her guests a hundred years earlier. The house is so well-loved and so full of living that I half expect Christo himself to join us for a cocktail.

We take ours during a lecture called “Tools of the Trade.” That may sound rather basic, but even experienced gardeners come upon things they have never seen before. (Luckily, the Dixter gift shop has a treasure trove of unusual, distinctive offerings.) Garrett demonstrates the proper way to divide the root ball of a perennial, plunging two forks, back to back, into the tangle and gently but firmly thrusting them apart. The “tickling fork,” with its long handle and stubby fingers, ideal for fluffing the soil after planting, turns out to be a group favorite. I order one immediately. My six “classmates” are a varied lot. A doctor from New Hampshire, a brilliant woman with a prodigious horticultural memory, contends with short growing seasons and thin, sandy soil, while the philanthropist from Tennessee has a long, moist, hot summer ahead of her. The soil in my own garden is of such heavy clay that I am sure I could make pottery of it. No question—and there is a constant stream of them throughout every day—catches Garrett off guard.

We move into the billiard room for the first of several slideshows that will introduce us to the gardens. We get a vivid picture of the various mixed borders full of trees, shrubs, perennials, biannuals, and annuals; Dixter’s gardens are models of “succession planting,” in which beds are constantly added to throughout the growing season as flowers are spent and plants go dormant. Garrett points out which plants are self-sowers, popping up wherever their seeds have drifted; he shows us how climbing plants such as clematis and some roses are encouraged to clamber through the larger shrubs and trees. He asks us to pay attention to the contrasting shapes and textures of plants, noting how there is a good undulation in their heights. The colors of the garden in full summer are inebriating. “But turn these pictures into black and white,” Garrett emphasizes, “and the compositions still work.”

The youngest of six children and a very shy boy, Christo had been profoundly attached to his mother, Daisy, and it was from her that he learned to garden. All of Daisy’s children were also experts at needlepoint and embroidery; their bright handiwork is on pillows and seat cushions all over the house. Christo was always drawn to colors, and wore shirts as splendidly hued as the dahlias in his garden. “I don’t understand the color wheel,” Garrett once told him. “Good. Keep it like that,” was his mentor’s response.

Garrett tells stories about his early days in training at Dixter, how Christo would move about with his notebook, recording color combinations, heights of plants, their fragrance, the health of the beds. He wrote a weekly column for Country Life for an astonishing 42 years. “But there was always laughter in the garden,” Garrett says. “ ‘You’ve got to enjoy it,’ he would tell the young people working with him.” Christo taught Garrett that gardening was like painting a picture, one that changed every month. “Dixter is all about spirit—and atmosphere,” Garrett says.

On the morning of our second lecture, “The Basics of Soil Composition,” we are ushered into the Great Hall, where the fire is again roaring. Nearly 40 plates of compost and various types and components of soil have been laid out in rows on the floor. We are encouraged to grab fistfuls of the materials, squeeze them, sniff them. Soil with a healthy tilth actually does smell delicious.

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